Clearly we agree a lot.
We each oppose capitalism and seek just and equitable improvements against current oppressions. We advocate workers and consumers councils. We oppose markets and also hierarchical planning. We believe that movements should prefigure alternative goals even in current work.
We also agree that beyond capitalism there exists not simply a desirable economy, but also economic systems we disavow. A difference we have is that I think the rejected systems elevate an economic coordinator class to ruling status, whereas you view this same group as a political product having to do with Stalinism.
We both oppose authoritarian political structures. We also oppose economic structures that create and elevate the in-between group I call the coordinator class and you view as a bureaucracy. This means not only replacing markets and/or central planning with a new allocation system, on which we agree, but also replacing the current division of labor with balanced job complexes, on which we also agree, or are close to agreeing, at any rate.
We both think allocation should be consciously, cooperatively undertaken by workers and consumers in a horizontal manner. I propose participatory planning for this self management. You agree on the value and on participatory planning’s merits, but think it may require amendment.
We may differ about remuneration. You feel it is important to pose a single value that covers all remuneration. I am happy saying we should remunerate effort and sacrifice when people can work, but should remunerate need for those who can’t work. Does the single value you wind up with permit other than the remuneration norms I advocate? I don’t know.
All that is congenial and mutual. Yet, you are in a Trotskyist Party, the SWP, in the Marxist Leninist tradition. In contrast, I strongly reject such parties and that tradition, and am quite critical of Marxism as well.
A reader might reasonably wonder how this is possible. How can these guys line up shoulder to shoulder in what they reject, differ almost indiscernibly in the economic values they espouse, agree up to what appear to be fine points regarding economic aims — and yet still have such contrary allegiances?
Put to me, the questioner might ask: “Albert, how can you think that Marxism Leninism yields outcomes you aggressively reject and yet here you are interacting congenially with someone who identifies with that heritage?”
To conclude, I hope to explain why this seemingly self contradictory picture is accurate, possible, and not even unusual.
Imagine you were at a public talk by Karl Marx. It is a wondrous tour de force in which he rails at capitalists for gouging workers while piling up wealth at the expense of humanity. He explains how ownership imposes on capitalists a self image, a view of their employees, and a set of interests that yield their heinous behavior even against their own better natures. He says it is a systemic phenomenon deriving from position in the economy and manifesting as members of the class together carry out their economic pursuits.
The talk ends and Marx exits, stage left, of course. You go out for a bite and, lo and behold, there in the next booth at the local eatery is Karl Marx having his own snack while chatting with his close friend and life-long ally, Frederich Engels. Yes, that’s right, there with Marx is the Frederich Engels who owns a factory. How is that possible? Why is Marx not spitting in the face of this owner of capital? Put differently, doesn’t the fact that this owner disavows exploitation contradict Marx’s claims about the owning class?
The chummy session is possible without contradiction because Marx’s class analysis never says that every person who occupies a certain position will inexorably hold certain views. Class analysis says, instead, that the position class members occupy tends to impose certain broad behaviors and views on them, and that in the clash and jangle of these and a host of other influences, on average the economic commonalities will yield the predicted broad characteristics for the overall behavior of the class. Engels himself diverges from his class average but in doing so he in no sense violates anti-capitalist claims about his class.
Returning to my view of Marxism, I say it is an array of concepts and their interrelations plus assertions about how to comprehend attributes of society and history in specific cases. I say the concepts have many virtues — but also have two overriding faults that make me feel we must transcend this framework (just as we should expect every intellectual framework to be transcended at some point).
The first fault, potentially correctable even while one is a Marxist, is a relative conceptual over-attentiveness to class and its associated economic sphere of life and parallel/derivative conceptual under-attentiveness to race, gender, sexuality, and political position and the associated kinship, cultural, and political spheres of social life. The claim is that groups of users of Marxist concepts will collectively highlight how economy impacts the other spheres of life, but largely overlook how those other spheres impact the economy. The users will highlight how classes can be central agents of oppression and liberation, but under perceive how genders, sexual groups, races, religious and ethnic and other cultural groups, and political formations can be central agents of oppression and liberation.
Importantly, any particular individual Marxist will do better or worse at all this depending not only on how mechanically he or she holds to narrow economic and class concepts, but depending also on his or her familiarity with and use of other perspectives when thinking about relations, developing agendas, etc. But, despite that variation, given that the societies we live in tend to make us not only classist but also racist, sexist, homophobic and authoritarian, and given the exigencies of difficult daily practice and political struggle, and in particular given the pressures and benefits of collective unity, my big claim is that on average groups of Marxists working together will be relatively weak in their comprehension of and commitment to address the non-economic dimensions of social life, especially when doing so seems to conflict with their shared insights about class and economy.
Please notice, I don’t say Marxists are racist, sexist, authoritarian people. I say, instead, that there is a built in conceptual bias, generally exacerbated by conditions, that is conceptually quite likely — and by the historical evidence pragmatically overwhelmingly likely — to lead to harmful results. In the clash and jangle of many factors at work, the shared economic concepts tend to swamp more subtle insights.
The solution, one might argue, is for Marxists to append insights from other perspectives (as I tried to do myself, many years back). And that’s fine, as long as Marxists are prepared to permit it. But here is the wrinkle. For many Marxists, particularly in groups that work hard to attain and maintain a collective identity, such innovation violates a major tenet about the priority of class and economy, and if ever undertaken at all, under pressure of events is jettisoned.
I think a much better solution, therefore, is to adopt a new conceptual framework which keeps what continues to be valuable from Marxism, of course, but adds newly needed gender, cultural, and political concepts at the same priority level as its economic concepts (and in other places I have tried to do this).
Okay, that’s broadly one issue of major disagreement, but not the biggest issue of dispute because many Marxists and Marxist Leninists try to deal with it, and to a degree succeed – just as many feminists try to deal with not overemphasizing kinship and gender to the detriment of attending to other critical factors, and to a degree succeed.
The most intractable difference I have with Marxism Leninism is, instead, my rejection of Marxism’s conceptualization of the economy itself, and my rejection of Leninism’s practical strategy and vision.
I think Marxist consciousness on average in real struggle leads to insufficient attention to the agendas and possibilities of what I call the coordinator class, up to and including championing an economy that elevates the coordinator class to ruling status. And I think that Leninist strategy on average in real struggle generates collective allegiances to both authoritarian and coordinatorist results.
Now when some Marxist or Leninist says, hold on, that isn’t me — or says I can name a Marxist who doesn’t have the failing you mention — or says I can name a Leninist who doesn’t have those failings, it has virtually no impact on the argument I am making, just as when some sociologist says hold on, Engels owned capital, or hold on, Mr. Rich just wrote a very humane book, it has no impact on Marxist assertions about the average implications of ownership of private property.
Probably due to a failing in my presentation, Marxists and Leninists never quite hear my criticism the way I intend. They hear an easily dismissible claim that every single person who calls him or herself a Marxist or a Leninist thinks so and so. They do not hear a more subtle claim that the commonalities among people who call themselves Marxists and particularly who operate in Marxist Leninist parties tend to overwhelm the myriad of other attributes present and, when the clash and jangle resolves itself into broad average attributes — the result is overwhelmingly economism, authoritarianism, sectarianism, and, in particular, coordinator-serving strategy and vision.
What’s my evidence?
Well, I describe the concepts of Marxism and the strategic commitments of Leninism in a way that yields a prediction. The evidence is that the prediction is borne out by the practice of every single Marxist Leninist party that has ever attained power or even attained any significant size and scope, and of every single serious Marxist Leninist model for a post capitalist economy, as well. I don’t know how much more evidence one could offer. Okay, some will dispute pieces of it. They will find no fault with East Germany circa 1980, or no fault with Russia whether under Stalin, or more likely only before that, or will find no fault only with the Bolsheviks before they took powerâ€¦or with but not middle or late Mao, or whatever. But really, even ignoring how weak the assertions are, is this anything other than special pleading?
And what would Marxists and Leninists need to do to rectify the situation? All that it would take to get well under way is to admit that the historical framework is insufficient and flawed, (and shouldn’t that be a welcome thing to say, given the mess that the framework has so often bequeathed in practice? and given its age and the probability that we know enough now to do better?), and then to pursue improvement by agreeing that other spheres of social life are as key as economics is (and why does it hurt so much to say that, and to act on it?), and most of all to realize that, yes, class refers to groups defined by their economic relations including but not confined to property relations (and why is it so hard for most Marxists and Marxist Leninists to even hear, much less entertain, much less act on such thoughts?).
And here is where I annoy even people who are my friends. It seems to me that the difficulty of taking these steps has more to do with a religious cast of mind and personal identity and group commitment than with anything rational or moral. I find no other convincing way to explain why when we talk about politics and dissent without using concepts that put the Marxist framework in question, and without mentioning historical actors from the Leninist heritage, things go swimmingly, but the minute something comes up that could imply a gap in the Marxist Leninist identity, guards go up and what seems like obtuse denial and aggressive defensiveness sets in.
Contrary to how people often react to the above suggestion, it isn’t extreme. The truth is that we all behave this way sometimes. It is the essence of insecure self defense against loss of self image or group allegianceâ€¦and everyone has some matters or behaviors or linkages or viewpoints that when challenged spur this type reaction. The problem is that this reaction is particularly pernicious when its presence defends beliefs that are not only wrong, but also harmful to ourselves and to others, and especially when it occurs collectively, with each person not only abetting but enlarging the steadfastness of others, and with the overall impact that much greater.
Anyhow, Alex, what can I say? We agree on a lot. I feel that if we direct the conversation carefully, over dinner or in a congenial online debate, or even arm in arm in some struggle situations, we can have a delightful time together. Yet I also fear that if we vary just a few words, or make reference to certain historical epochs, all hell will break loose. And I suspect you have the same impression.
Is this a conundrum? Or are these dynamics at the heart of some of the left’s historic difficulties? I don’t know if this debate has got you and I very far in understanding that, or has helped anyone else do so — but I hope so.
In any event, it has been very interesting and instructive for me.
Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you in Mumbai!
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